Can a British-led cast hope Thermopylae battle film save a historical genre?
‘Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’
So reads the epigram carved into a commemorative stone, appropriately spartan, on a Greek hill. The tale behind it thrilled generations of schoolchildren educated in the classics. Hollywood is now praying it can breathe new life into the genre of the ancient historical epic with the help of a British-led cast.
The Battle of Thermopylae is regarded as one of history’s pivotal moments, a doomed yet heroic last stand in 480BC with nothing less than Western civilisation at stake. Led by King Leonidas, an elite force of 300 Spartans, backed by around 7,000 Greeks, was vastly outnumbered by King Xerxes’ invading Persian army, which has been estimated at between 80,000 and more than a million. For three days the Spartans stood firm at the ‘Hot Gates’, the main pass into central Greece, and inflicted appalling losses before being outflanked and killed. The sacrifice inspired all of Greece to unite and drive out the Persians and is therefore seen as enabling the seeds of Western democracy to flourish.
The story has faded from the school curriculum along with Greek and Latin, but a dark and violent £30m film dramatisation, named 300, receives its world premiere next month at the Berlin Film Festival. British actors take leading parts, with Gerard Butler, who played the title role in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, as Leonidas, rising star Lena Headey as his wife, Queen Gorgo, and Dominic West as the warrior Theron. But cinema-goers will also be assailed by computer-generated special effects featuring monsters, battlefield carnage and superhuman acrobatics – this is no literal interpretation.
Hollywood is pinning hopes on 300 to rediscover the kind of success enjoyed by Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator in 2000. Since then the ancient epic has suffered setbacks with Troy, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, which was derided by critics as a travesty of Homer, and Alexander, with a bleached-blond Colin Farrell, which flopped at the box office and earned director Oliver Stone some of his worst reviews. Both films were made by Warner Brothers, as is 300. Another turkey could destroy studios’ willingness to invest in the genre, just as in 1963 when the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra killed such productions for decades.
‘Gladiator was such a huge success in 2000 that a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon,’ said historian Paul Cartledge, a Sparta expert who advised the makers of 300 on ancient Greek pronunciations. ‘I thought Troy was quite good but my colleagues did not agree. Alexander was a lumbering, shapeless failure, historically and artistically. It’s put the notion of making ancient movies back, so there is a lot riding on 300.’
300 is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and uses the same technology that brought his comic book Sin City to the big screen. Miller was inspired by Thermopylae when, aged six, he saw the film The 300 Spartans, starring Ralph Richardson. ‘It was a shocker, because the heroes died,’ Miller recalled. ‘I was used to seeing Superman punch out planets. It was an epiphany to realise that the hero wasn’t necessarily the guy who won.’ Miller researched the battle, interviewed academics and visited the site in Greece but has admitted that he occasionally used artistic licence at the expense of accuracy.
300 has been described as ‘the goriest ever film’ and its director, Zack Snyder, says it possesses a ‘hysterical weirdness’. He reportedly enlisted an extreme fitness trainer and sent the actors and stuntmen to a ‘boot camp’ for two-and-a-half months, forcing them to endure punishing workouts and live off meat, leaves and berries. Snyder said: ‘I told everyone, “You guys have got to be in crazy shape, in superhero shape.”‘ He issued them with T-shirts that read, ‘I died at Thermopylae’.
The film recreates the moment when the Spartans were warned that enemy arrows would darken the sun and one soldier replied, ‘Then we will fight them in the shade.’ Cartledge, author of Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World, said he was not surprised the battle retains its fascination. ‘It’s one of those iconic moments, like Dunkirk, a defeat but a glorious defeat that marked the turning point towards victory. All 300 Spartans took part on the basis that they had sons so they knew their bloodline would not die out. They had about 7,000 Greek allies, and I think it’s reasonable to estimate they were up against 200,000 Persians. Had the Persians won the overall war, where would we be? We can’t say democracy in the Athenian manner would have happened in the way it did.’
Winners and losers in ancient tussle
Based on ancient Rome under emperor Marcus Aurelius
Director Ridley Scott
Stars Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix
Budget $103m (£53m)
Worldwide box office $456m
Critics said ‘Just when we thought the day of the sword-and-sandal spectacular was a distant memory, along comes a Roman epic to rival classics such as Ben Hur’
Based on Homer’s account of the assault on the city by the Greeks
Director Wolfgang Petersen
Stars Eric Bana, Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom
Box office: $481m
Critics said ‘In Troy, and in overreaching, underachieving productions like it, digital imagery is fast becoming both a Trojan horse and an Achilles heel’
Based on the life of Alexander the Great
Director Oliver Stone
Stars Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins
Box office $167m